The Israelites were living in captivity in Egypt. They were persecuted and abused. Pharaoh ordered that all Hebrew newborn boys be killed. Moses was born during this time. His mother hid him in a basket and Pharaoh’s daughter found him and raised him in the palace. God spoke to Moses through a burning bush and instructed him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt to Canaan, the “Promised Land.” It took a long time to get Pharaoh to allow the Israelites to leave. Before leaving, the first Passover was observed. God told Moses that He would pass through Egypt and that every Egyptian boy would die. All Israelites were to place the blood of a lamb on the door so their houses would be passed over and the boys would live. After that Pharaoh allowed them to go. Moses was the leader on the journey and along the way he performed miracles like parting the Red Sea, turning his staff to a serpent, and turning the river water to blood. He was given the Ten Commandments. The Israelites were guided by God in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. The journey was long, filled with good days, trials, and grumbling. Eventually, after 40 years in the wilderness, they made it. Moses saw the promised land and then died. He never actually made it there.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin - man smiling in suit and tie wearing glasses
By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Why does God declare that He has “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” so that the despot will not change his mind and free the Israelites? Doesn’t this collide head on with our notion of free will?

Is the Torah telling us that God interrupts the ordinary course of human events to introduce His will into the hearts of people, sometimes even preventing them from making the right decision? What about the idea that absolutely nothing must stand in the way of repentance, that no one, not even a righteous person, can stand where a penitent stands?

Rabbi Shlomo Goren gives a novel explanation, which was apparently inspired by the miraculous events he experienced with the rise of the State of Israel. There are times, he maintains, when God must introduce His will into the hearts of people, but this is limited to monarchs, emperors and pharaohs. Rabbi Goren suggests that we have to distinguish between an individual and the leader of a nation.

Individuals always have free choice. However, because God has a master plan with Israel as the catalyst, the Almighty may sometimes be moved to control the choices of leaders of key nations during critical and fateful historical periods. Such a situation occurred at the very dawn of history with the confrontation between Pharaoh and the Hebrew slaves, and the Almighty had to step in.

The obstinacy on the part of Pharaoh provides a means for solving the tension between the notion of free will and God’s initial declaration regarding “hardening his heart.” Pharaoh had already been given five opportunities to repent, five opportunities to hear the voice of God demanding that His people shall be released from slavery and still refused. God is now effectively saying to Pharaoh: “You stiffened your neck; you hardened your heart; now I am going to add stubbornness to your own inner stubbornness.”

The result is that Pharaoh himself became frozen, locked into a conception of how to behave; once that happens, it becomes exceedingly difficult for anyone to change his mind.

It seems to me that had Pharaoh come to the conclusion that it was wrong to enslave the Hebrews based on his own new-found convictions about the true God of the universe who guarantees freedom to all, his repentance would have emanated “from love” and would have been accepted. Since, ironically enough, it would have been his former sinful acts and obstinacy that led him to such a conclusion, even his prior transgressions could now be seen as merits. After all, had it not been for them, he would never have switched positions and arrived at his new awareness and religio-ethical consciousness.

This is clearly not the position in which we find Pharaoh. Were he to release the Jews after the fifth plague, it would have nothing to do with a transformed and ennobled moral sensitivity and everything to do with his having been bludgeoned over the head by the power of the plagues. Such repentance out of fear is hardly true repentance and cannot be accepted by God to atone for previous sins.

Because Pharaoh is not truly repenting in any shape or form, God “hardens his heart” to the suffering of the plagues and allows him to continue to do what he really believes in doing: enslaving the Hebrews, who must wait until the Almighty deems it the proper time for redemption.

Parshat Bo: Exodus 10:1-13:16; Jeremiah 46:13-28.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.